Allergic to Death

Allergic to Death

Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours. -Yogi Berra

Ancient civilizations, believing in the mysterious afterworld, gave much honor and respect to the priestly caste that kept its secrets. These priests, always charged with caring for the dead, were held in high esteem and perhaps even fear and trepidation, for they held the very keys to eternal life. The rituals they performed, the incantations they chanted, the diligent yet inexplicable preparations they undertook all created an impenetrable fog of religious inscrutability that forever divided the uneducated superstitious masses from the elite clergy that grew fat and rich off of the naiveté and trust of their congregants.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 21:5 explains that the Torah takes a diametrically opposed view of the role of priests within Judaism, which can be seen in the laws that guide their conduct. Starting with the establishment of the line of Kohens, with Aaron the High Priest as its founding member, he and his sons are prescribed with rules and strictures that are the antithesis of other priestly castes in the world.

A Kohen not only doesn’t tend to the dead – he is strictly forbidden to even have any contact with the dead (except for his own immediate family). This ingrained aversion or even allergy that a Kohen has to death ensures that the Jewish priestly elite would be much more preoccupied with life and the living than with death and the dying. In Rabbi Hirsch’s words:

“Judaism teaches us not how to die but how to live so that, even in life, we may overcome death, lack of freedom, the enslavement to physical things and moral weakness. Judaism teaches us how to spend every moment of a life marked by moral freedom, thought, aspirations, creativity and achievement, along with the enjoyment of physical pleasures, as one more moment in life’s constant service to the everlasting God.”

Judaism takes death seriously, but it takes life even more seriously. May we live it to its fullest potential.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In honor of V Day which was commemorated this week, and all the men and woman who sacrificed their lives for freedom.

Powerful Humility

Powerful Humility

What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God. -Monica Baldwin

Captain_America

Humility should not be confused with low self-esteem. Moses, considered the most humble of men, did not lack self-esteem. What he did accomplish was to submit himself completely to the will of God. That was part of his unsurpassed humility and his greatness.

The Sfat Emet in 5637 and 5638 (1877 and 1878) on the weekly Torah reading of Emor explains the power of being humble. A person who humbles himself before God, who controls his own desires in favor of what he understands to be God’s commands, will merit seeing God alter the very fabric of reality to realize the humble man’s positive desires.

Furthermore, the humble man, who does his positive actions discretely, will eventually have a public reward. The converse also being true, that the sinner who sins privately, and remains unrepentant, will eventually have the ignominy of some public shame.

May we reach true humility, by having a correct relationship to God and witness miracles and blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the humble people at Kohelet Policy Forum who are accomplishing powerful things.

The Sin of Missed Opportunities

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/emor-the-sin-of-missed-opportunities/

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Emor

The Sin of Missed Opportunities

Four things come not back. The spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity. -Arabic Proverb

Jewish faith is defined, constrained and guided by a set of rules. Commandments direct how we should act, speak and even think. Jewish law (Halacha) in all of its complexity and subtlety is meant to be a guidebook for life.

To a person that is just becoming familiar with the plethora of laws, the extensiveness and detail of the commandments can be overwhelming. However, there are a number of overarching principles that can assist and that are worth keeping in mind:

  • Continuous Torah study is fundamental – if you don’t know, you can’t do.
  • Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t like to be done to you.
  • The Sabbath is a key mainstay of the Jewish people.
  • Idol worship is a fundamental negation of Jewish faith.

There are a few others, but one that Baal Haturim relates to is chosen by one of the most authoritative redactors of Jewish Law, Rabbi Yosef Karo, to start off his magnum opus, the Shulchan Aruch.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 22:29 warns us not to let the opportunity to perform a Mitzvah (a commandment) pass us by. The chance to fulfill a precept of Jewish law is often fleeting and once lost is gone forever. We are enjoined to be swift in the pursuit of God’s directives. We must awaken with alacrity to use our time, our resources, our intelligence, and our strengths to lead a life that seizes upon the opportunities that are in front of us.

May we always grasp the opportunities to do good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the team of Merkaz HaHalacha (Center of Jewish Law) who continue to grow and succeed.

 

 

Selective Lineage

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/emor-selective-lineage/

Netziv Leviticus: Emor

Selective Lineage

“From our ancestors come our names from our virtues our honor.” –Proverb

According to Jewish Law, Jewishness is passed on by ones mother. However, ones tribal affiliation (meaning, of the twelve original tribes of Israel) was passed on by ones father. This remains true in the two major groups within Judaism that still retain a tribal (and sub-tribal) identity – the Levites and the Cohanim.

Therefore, what we would consider the overarching national Jewish identity is a function of matrilineal descent. Meanwhile, the more specific tribal identity is a function of patrilineal descent, though currently less relevant to most Jews, as our tribal histories and lineages have been mostly forgotten in the mists of time. Most non-Levites and non-Cohanim are presumed to descend from some amalgamation of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. This is not taking into account rediscovered lost tribes, such as Jewish Ethiopians who are believed to be descendants of the tribe of Dan, or Jewish Indians from the tribe of Menashe, or other groups around the world that are being discovered.

However, the Netziv on Leviticus 22:11, highlights yet another, third type of ancestry. Let’s call it “sanctity lineage”. The case is of a non-Jewish slave woman that was purchased by a Cohen. In a sense the slave is considered the property of the Cohen. A child born to that woman (and not even sired by the Cohen) is likewise considered the property of the Cohen, with the unique and unusual privilege, not available to any other group within Judaism — even though this child is not Jewish — to eat and partake of the “truma”, the special portion that Jews in Temple times were required to give to the Cohen and was considered sacred.

What this sheds light on, is that inherited status depends on the purpose. For determining Jewishness, we follow the mother. For determining tribe, we follow the father. For determining whether one can eat from the sacred “truma”, we follow the “owner”.

May we have clarity on our pedigree, identities and affiliation and know the difference between them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

 

Dedication

To my friend, Elli Fischer, for his extensive writings in general and his recent article on the difference between identity and affiliation in particular.

 

Repetitive Repetitions

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/emor-repetitive-repetitions/]

Ibn Ezra Leviticus: Emor

Repetitive Repetitions

 “The mantram becomes one’s staff of life and carries one through every ordeal. Each repetition has a new meaning, carrying you nearer and nearer to God.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Since the invention of literary critics, (which came about on the very heels of the invention of authors), there has been much ink spilled complaining about repetition in ones writing. Perhaps the reader sees it as a direct attack on their intellect. “We got it the first time,” they must think.

The Bible is replete with repetitions. Perhaps one of the most common phrases that one sees over and over again, (besides “And God spoke to Moses, saying…”), is “I am God” that punctuates a plethora of diverse and unrelated commandments.

I think to myself and say to Him: “Um, with all due respect God, we know You are God. We didn’t think it was anybody else. We don’t suspect You of having an identity crisis, so what’s with the constant deluge of “I am God” throughout Your book?”

Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 22:33 comes to the rescue. He explains that “I am God” takes us back to the First Commandment of the famed Ten. The First Commandment is where God sets the foundation of our belief system. “You must believe in Me.” If we don’t have the basic belief in God, then the other commandments lack force or meaning. “I am God” is the reason we do the commandments. That is why He needs to accentuate many commandments with this reminder. That is why He punctuates various commands to link the performance of His will with the intrinsic belief in Him. We can never forget that “He is God.” It bears repeating. Constantly.

Despite literary and biblical critics, some things are worth hearing over and over and over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the teachers who took the pains to repeat themselves.

Flesh of my Flesh

Kli Yakar Leviticus:Emor

Flesh of my Flesh 

“May the gods grant you all things which your heart desires,

and may they give you a husband and a home and gracious concord,

for there is nothing greater and better than this

– when a husband and wife keep a household in oneness of mind,

a great woe to their enemies and joy to their friends, and win high renown.”

Homer (800 BC – 700 BC), The Odyssey

 

Priests of the Jewish nation (Kohanim) are prohibited from approaching the dead. Whether in a hospital, a cemetery or even for the burial ceremony, Kohanim are only allowed to come in contact with the deceased from a short list of immediate family members. At the top of that list is the wife.

The Kli Yakar (Leviticus 21:2) explains both the strange formulation for wife (‘sheero hakarov’) and why she’s first. He states that while the husband may be the classical breadwinner, the wife is the one who turns grain into food and threads into clothes.  

The term ‘sheero hakarov’ indicates this proximity, that according to Rabbinic dictum, the wife is as his own body (‘ishto kegufo’). The Kli Yakar explains that in a smoothly operating household the wife is the one who “brightens his eyes and stands him on his feet.”

May we men be appreciative of our wives (or for those still looking, may you find them soon) for their endless toil on our behalf, and may the wives (and those soon to be) forgive the masculine tendency to seem oblivious to so many things. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi 

Dedication 

To who else? To our wives.